Wednesday, May 17, 2017

You Don't Need A Degree To Be A Writer

I remember when I was a teenager, and I made the decision to be a writer. I was already a voracious reader, and thanks to extra credit assignments I was passingly familiar with writing short stories for my English classes. So I took the next step, and started writing out of school, putting together stories and universes in the clumsy, excitable way most writers do when they take their first steps. Several years passed where I made progress, and my enthusiasm for the written word remained undimmed. Then I realized I was approaching that mystical age of 18 where I was going to be expected to go to college and choose a career.

I knew what I wanted to do. Problem was, I didn't have the first clue about how to do it.

Unfortunately, no one else seemed to know, either.
The problem with being a writer is that it's one of those jobs people know exist, but they have no idea what the hiring process entails. It's like being a fashion consultant, or a bounty hunter... there are people who get paid to do these things, but the general population scratches their heads regarding how you get that job. Most folks assume that writing is one of those things you train for at college. After all, that's where journalists and media people get their skills, so why wouldn't it be the place you go to get your degree in creative writing?

You can do that, if you are one of those fortunate people who have a lot of money laying around, and you need to spend it in a hurry. If you actually want to work as a professional writer, though, then that degree isn't going to be worth the paper it's printed on, much less the checks you wrote to the bursar's office.

There's No Universal Way To Be The "Right" Writer

Most careers you go to college for have some kind of universal standard you're being trained to. If you're a doctor, then you're learning how to diagnose illnesses, how to perform surgery, etc. If you're a lawyer then you're learning how the law functions, how to argue within the bounds of the legal system, and what the rules governing our actions really are. Whether your major is research or telecommunications, teaching or psychology, you are learning the skills and rules required to do a given job. A job that is going to be performed within a certain set of boundaries you need to be trained into.

The problem is there are only three rules to being a good writer... and no one knows what the hell they are.

They were lost in the great ruin of Answeria, where dwelt the winning lottery numbers, and the key to successful marriage.
Taking creative writing courses can be helpful, don't get me wrong. You can learn about the elements of story, get feedback on your work, and most importantly, get practice writing (and completing) stories. You can talk to people who have more experience than you, who have been on the inside of the industry, and whose creativity plays well with yours.

With that said, you can achieve all of those things on your own without paying the costs of college classes. You can sign up for writing symposiums, get a writer's group together, go to conventions, read blogs and books by authors telling you about their experience, and submit your work to forums and other places to get feedback. You can learn just as much, and make just as many publishing connections, that way.

Lastly, though, a creative writing degree is useless for a specific reason; publishers aren't buying your degree. They're buying your book.

Will People Buy Your Book?

A degree is a statement that you have been trained by a university in a given field. Even if it's just a welding certificate, your school is stating that you have the skills to do a particular job. Which is great... but a college's assurances isn't what publishers are buying.

This is more what they're interested in.
Publishing is an old-school trade, in the sense that your employers are buying your work. They don't care where you learned to produce it, who taught you, or who you studied under. What they care about is if you can do the job. So if you can write stellar magazine copy that gets readers to actually subscribe and take an interest in a publication, the editor isn't going to care if you got your degree at Princeton, or Cornfield U. Most of the time the publisher doesn't even care if you went to college at all. They only care about one thing.

Can you do the job?

No one can teach you how to write a compelling novel, or short story. You can't get a red stamp that makes you an ace reporter, or which guarantees you can write great product descriptions. Nothing can make you a great script writer... except one thing.


Once you go through the process enough times, you'll find something unique happens; people start coming to you. Whether it's readers who want more of your stories, or publishers who have seen your other work and want to hire you, nothing guarantees your tomorrow like the work you put out today.

So sit down at that keyboard, and bleed. Then just keep doing that, day after day, until you get where you want to be.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helps the writers out there who are wondering how the rest of us do the job, and it stops you from making a foolish decision. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my blog, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, and I'll give you both my everlasting gratitude along with some sweet swag to call your own!


  1. Really enjoyed reading that. I ma trying to write and you have given me a little more "permission" to have a go. Thank you...

  2. The first rule in becoming a successful writer is to get money. Everything else is a cake-walk from there. After graduating from high school in 1982, my parents wanted me to study computer science and get some kind of job in that field. Their #1 goal was that I make lots of money. So I did as they expected and went 2 ½ years of studying computer science without knowing what the hell I was doing. My real desire was to be a fiction writer. I also wanted to make movies, so when I switched my major from computer science to radio / TV / film in 1985, my parents all but disowned me. I might as well have told them I was going to become a professional poker player. Ironically, I returned to my college studies several years ago and earned a degree in professional writing. I had realized many years ago I even liked business or technical writing. Ultimately, my folks came around and understood that this is my life, and I should have been in control of it from the start. They ended up supporting my creative writing desires. My one regret now is that I haven’t published anything outside of my own blog, before my father died last year. But it remains a definitive goal for me.

  3. The key to writing is just do it. There is no set path. None of the authors I know personally have writing degrees. They are doctors, lawyers, IT people, bureaucrats... The one thing they have in common is that their "day jobs" influence their writing.